Copyright Dark Horse Publications 1999
I'm sure you would like a taste of my snooker book, so I've decided to put a few extracts below, and allow you to judge for yourself. All right, I'm probably no Dostoyevsky (who?) or even Stephen King, but then, their genres are slightly different. I aim to give the snooker fan a good read, with, hopefully, some interesting observations of my own. Judge for yourself.
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Chapter One - Of Early Experiences (extract)
Little clubs nestling down leafy lanes, village institutes lying in the shadow of disused mine buildings, Methodist chapels with arched windows converted into snooker rooms, old barns where you had to bend your head to avoid the beams, former courtrooms where the judge's dais still looks down austerely on proceedings, social clubs bustling with activity in city centres, commercial clubs with ten tables housed in old factory buildings - I've played in them all and others too numerous to set down here. Surroundings? Who cares? Centrally heated and air conditioned, draughty and oozing moisture through every pore, broken windows boarded up and cabbage leaves strewn across the floor? So what? Give me a table covered with a cloth in varying shades of green, twenty-two balls and congenial company, then I'm set up to enjoy the game that has obsessed me for three-quarters of my waking life.
I first started playing snooker in darkest Cornwall (well, it was literally dark in 1954 - see below) almost forty years ago at the tender age of around twelve. About fifty yards away from where I am writing there was a tiny institute, which is the kind of place where snooker is still played today in many Cornish villages. At that time you were lucky to see two cars an hour pass by and you could play football in the road. Park your car outside today and within two minutes a squeal of brakes will warn you of the folly of your action. For despite the fact that the road has not improved, it has become a convenient 'rat-run' between the neighbouring towns and traffic often approaches eighty miles an hour in both directions. That place where I first started is still there, but it is now a neighbour's garage or storehouse and is surrounded by rubble. The word 'INSTITUTE' is still emblazoned in peeling paint across the front. The hedge where the gate once stood has been demolished to give access to the owner's car. Ivy and tree branches now entwine themselves across its facade, almost obscuring its original purpose from the casual passer-by. Today, even if the building were in good condition, it would not be allowed into the local Leagues, because the table it once housed was only three-quarter size. At the time for me, however, it was a place surrounded by magic and mystery, where the older boys would secrete themselves for hours at a time. But they were fourteen or over, and were allowed within its hallowed precincts by virtue of their age and their two shillings and sixpence membership subscription.
My middle brother Keith (there are three of us and I'm the youngest), who is about two years older than me, started disappearing to this place on a regular basis, and I asked him where he went. He began explaining the intricacies of this game called 'snooker' to me, but it was difficult to visualise. I'm not sure if we even had a television set at the time, and there certainly wasn't any snooker being shown even if we had had one. Incidentally, in 1954, just a few years before that time, I wouldn't say that Cornwall was a backwater, but when we first moved to this village from the comparative civilization of Redruth town, we had oil lamps on the table and had to go the local pump to collect water! There was also an 'adit' or stream just down the road, through which flowed water from the tin mine workings. It is still there, overgrown, and at the time we had to walk down a red clay path to dip our buckets in the stream at the bottom. Our shop, a galvanised building in the garden, had no heating and no lights, and in winter a convector heater warmed the backs of my aunt and mother as they sold groceries to the customers who could not get into town.
So, inspired by my brother's stories, I determined to find out about snooker for myself. I persuaded him to let me go to the institute during the school holidays, although he warned me that there'd be trouble if the caretaker Arthur caught me. I well remember hiding on several occasions behind some old carpetting or under the table when 'Arthur' was sighted coming down the road from his home. If he was merely going past to buy something at the general store (which my family ran, as I said), I would breathe a sigh of relief and emerge from my hiding place until Arthur was sighted again. If he turned in through the gate and up to the door I started to quake in my shoes and sink further down in my hiding-place. But at five feet nothing and suffering from 'arthuritis', as I was assured by my friends, Arthur would hardly have inspired fear in anyone other than me. Once inside, I experienced the delights of watching the older boys, Peter Bryant and Charlie Heath, hitting the balls around the table with gay abandon, and actually getting them in the pockets on occasions. But while they and others were there, it was very difficult to get on the table. Anyway, although I was always at the end of the queue, I was rarely at the end of the cue, if you'll pardon the pun, being the youngest and a non-member (as I was constantly reminded by the others), but eventually I managed to get my hands on a club cue and started to hit the balls around the table. Incidentally, the club cue has long since gone out of fashion, as it has tended to disappear from local clubs - literally, that is, as someone without a cue has walked off with it! Most players now have their own cue from an early age, and the club cue, in any event, was usually the shape of a dog's hind leg with something resembling pre-cast concrete for a tip. It is therefore difficult to understand why anyone would want to walk off with it, but if it's free somebody will take it! Nowadays, even the youngest player joining the club soon gets his own cue, be it a thick pool cue with a screw tip (which they soon abandon) or the ultimate 'quick release' two piece cue with its own extension. For there are no club cues, and people are so jealous of their own equipment that few will lend it out. Indeed, I find that, as soon as you lend your cue, the tip immediately goes into the most unusual shapes after just one frame by the borrower! Even your chalk, which you keep in pristine condition, with just the right level all around the top, is somehow quickly 'bored out' by these philistines!
But the shape or consistency of the cue did not concern me at that time as I experienced, for the first time, the magic of the green baize. The table, as I have explained, was not full-sized, as it would not have fitted into the narrow confines of the institute, but it was just right for me at my current height, and I was soon drawn into the mysteries of potting balls. Of course it took me some time to actually pot anything which was not hanging over the pocket, but the sense of achievement was enormous when I actually potted any ball which was more than a 'gimme'. I was hooked on the game from that moment.
This clandestine idyll continued for only a few months. Unfortunately, when there are numbers of young boys left on their own for long periods during the holidays or in the evenings, things do not always work out well, and the inevitable horse-play and havoc resulted in snooker balls being propelled through windows, fireworks being set off in the loft, etc. I hasten to add that this was not simply due to my arrival on the scene, although I was probably no more innocent than anyone else (I was 'easily led' at the time, as they say). The consequence was that this splendid building was fast becoming a shambles and it was closed by the trustees shortly after my first snooker experiences.
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Disappointing as this was to me, I put it out of my mind for some time, and indulged in all the other delights of my adolescent years, such as going to school, passing exams etc., which I was actually quite good at (you can see that from my English expression in this sentence). But then, with no insult intended to the charming speech of my fellow-Cornishmen, if you say "You kent (sic) speak English proper like what I can, you," then you are speaking 'proper Cornish'! (I do not refer, of course, to the Kernewek language, which has long since died out in popular speech, and is now the province of a few academics and bards.)
It was a few years before I was drawn into the snooker world once more when a friend of mine called Dave Barker suggested we go and play snooker at a club about two miles away. We by now had bicycles, so it was no great hardship to travel there. The only problem was that it was downhill all the way there, and uphill all the way back! Still, we were young and fit then, and, holding our cue-cases precariously in one hand, and the other hand on the handlebars, we set off. It was a hell of a problem getting back up East Hill!
Talking of bicycles, as far as effort was concerned, we didn't know we were born! I once spoke in Four Lanes to an old gentleman called Jack Symons, who didn't play snooker, but was related to the Kemps, of whom more later. Jack told me that in his youth he used to work at the quarries at St Keverne, on the Lizard peninsula. Starting work at eight o'clock, he would set off on his bicycle at six, work eight hours, then cycle back home, a round trip of forty miles and a twelve hour day in total. Apparently they were fitter in those days! And since Jack was eighty-five when he told me, it obviously hadn't done him any harm. If anyone had to do that nowadays, they'd soon prefer the dole! I think in Jack's time, though, the 'work-house' was the only alternative.
Even at the time of which I am speaking, my mother would still exclaim, when any expense was contemplated, "My dear, you'll drive us in the work-house!" No doubt in her youth she had heard her mother utter such remarks, as the work-houses had long since closed, but the original building of one of them still forms part of the Camborne-Redruth Community Hospital (Barncoose) premises to this day.
The Tuckingmill Snooker Club, on the outskirts of Camborne, was not exactly a snooker palace, but it was enough to whet my appetite for the game once more. The club cues were bent, the windows were encrusted with grime and cigarette smoke and the tables had not seen a new cloth for years. The balls would run off about two inches down their length, so it was a miracle when we actually made a break of more than a few points. I can still remember the delight of a particular break (I'm pretty sure it was one of 27) after a few weeks of playing there. But then, Jimmy White is reported as saying that his highest break was 27 for about three years, so I was in good company! Everyone can remember (if they're old enough) where they were when John F.Kennedy was assassinated, and it was at this club at about eleven o'clock at night that I remember the news coming over a transistor radio that someone had brought with them. The news did shock us, but I'm sure that at the age of 15 or 16 we were more interested in getting on the table for another frame of snooker!
The Tuckingmill Snooker Club had been a good club in its time, with a number of senior members who played a fair game, most of whom had played local league billiards (which was the more popular game at the time) in their heyday. There were black and white (mostly turning a sepia colour) photographs in the back rooms of winning players and league teams, suggesting a great former tradition within the club. You could imagine them with their long-john style trousers and military moustaches being marshalled into line for their photograph to be taken. And in them there was always a young boy or two sitting cross-legged on the floor. There was also a small library of books which the members would no doubt read if they were waiting for a game. These books were in variable condition and on various subjects (not snooker), but were soon due for an untimely end, as I shall explain later. At the time I first went there the number of senior members was in sharp decline, and we rarely saw anyone over the age of about twenty. This may have been due to the state of the room and the tables as much as anything else, as no self-respecting player capable of a reasonable standard would deign to play there.
The club was run by an elderly man with white hair and a white moustache called Charlie Meagor, (pronounced Magor) who we were assured had been a redoubtable player in his time. Charlie always wore a brown suit and a brown trilby hat, except when he took it off to scratch his silvery head. He had a younger brother called Horace, who was much more sprightly at about seventy, and with his cloth cap on his head, his bicycle clips in his hand, and his bike propped against the wall outside, would drop in now and again to visit his brother and occasionally show us how to play certain shots. I understand he was a Methodist lay preacher. It was unfortunate that Charlie Meagor was getting on in years, as he was not really capable of running the club. There was an old Cornish stove beside one of the two tables and he would sit there beside it, quite often munching an orange with his toothless gums. If there was any noise or disorder he would occasionally mumble an admonishment to the offenders, who more often than not would take no notice or tell him to 'go away'. Suffice it to say that the actual phrase 'go away' was not used, as it does not form a part of the vocabulary of most fifteen-year old boys, either then or now!
As you have by now guessed, the situation at this club was little better than in my local village institute. There was a caretaker who lived next door who was considered by the boys to be a 'hard man', and Charlie would sometimes call him in to deal with trouble-makers, but he could not always be bothered to confront young tearaways, and the order of the club gradually, or perhaps not so gradually, deteriorated. People started gambling (usually three-card brag) smoking and causing damage in the back rooms and one day Charlie had obviously upset someone, because he was found bound and gagged on the snooker table with his favourite orange stuffed in his mouth. A pile of books had been set on fire in one of the other rooms, but luckily the floor was made of concrete! We might have been considered young tearaways, but most of us liked mild-mannered old Charlie, and were a little upset and outraged at this unseemly treatment, but, although we were not actually present at this humiliation, we were also rather amused at the image it evoked!
Yes, I was unlucky with the snooker clubs I chose to frequent in my early years. The Tuckingmill Snooker Club was closed forthwith, and is now a Baptist Church. Of course the fact that I had been involved with both clubs was a pure coincidence - (Methinks he doth protest too much) - I just happened to be there at the time and their demise was due to a combination of large numbers of young people and a lack of management control. Such problems still need careful attention in the small village clubs of today, including my own, where, about 15 years ago, a number of our younger members were expelled for unruly behaviour. Individually, such youngsters are no worse than anyone else, but collectively they can cause chaos.
If you found the extract interesting, I have now placed some more on the website (see 'Read some more' below). You may use it for your personal interest, but it remains the property of the author. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
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